Minister attacks public authorities on secrecy over use of surveillance

The Government’s communities secretary, Eric Pickles, has hit out at the BBC, Royal Mail and Ofsted for trying to hide their use of covert surveillance powers without any judicial oversight or transparency.

The Guardian reports that, in response to research by the campaign group Big Brother Watch, Pickles claimed that it was "simply unacceptable" for publicly funded bodies to use powers in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) in order to spy on the public.

The paper also reports that the research shows that 345 local authorities across the UK have carried out a total of 9607 covert surveillance operations in the past three years and says that 26 councils have used to powers to spy on dog walkers.

Pickles said in his report, "Councils seriously abused and overused their snooping powers, for matters as trivial as spying on garden centres who sell pot plants; snooping on staff for using work showers; or monitoring shops for unlicensed parrots.”

Alongside the BBC, Ofsted, Royal Mail, the report also names the UK Border Agency, the Prison Service and UK Trade Investment as having refused to make any disclosure.

"It is important that the public can have faith that surveillance powers are being used only in those situations where serious crimes are taking place and only when there are no less intrusive alternative routes of investigation," wrote Pickles.

A TV Licensing spokesperson told The Guardian that the BBC used the Ripa powers only to detect licence evaders: "It is only used as a last resort once other enforcement methods have been exhausted.

"The reason we do not release more details on how and when it is used is to ensure people without a valid TV licence don't use this information to their advantage when attempting to avoid detection,” they added.

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